Monday, April 7, 2008

From the Mouth of Jerome Kern (via Mary Martin): Don’t Be a Dime a Dozen

Here’s another tidbit from Mary Martin’s autobiography My Heart Belongs:

Mr. Kern didn’t comment [on my audition] for a moment. Then he gave me some of the best advice I ever received—and I have had enough advice to fill this book and another besides. He said, "Miss Martin, why do you want to be a prima donna? They are a dime a dozen, and most of them have better voices than yours. Why don’t you find your own métier, your own style, and perfect it? Learn to be you.”

Then we visit another mouth:

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion . . .

That was Ralph Waldo Emerson in his oft-assigned essay Self-Reliance, his anthem of individuality.

Success breeds imitation, but imitation rarely breeds success. There are those with vision, then there are those who feed off the vision of others. Yes, no vision is entirely independent—we are all shaped by that which we encounter because, as Richard Rodgers once said, nothing comes from nothing. However, there is a monumental difference between chasing the trends and being authentic to whom you are as an artist.

For example, look at Mamma Mia, a show which has been phenomenally popular. How many investors dolled out money for Good Vibrations, All Shook Up, and Ring of Fire thinking that it was a new trend, the jukebox musical? How many of those shows were being developed before Mamma Mia hit it big—not many, likely.

Hollywood is a good example of this. In My Heart Belongs, Mary Martin writes about how she was, at different times in Hollywood, fashioned to look like many of the big mega-stars of the day—Rosalind Russell, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur—a practice which was popular at the time.

Hollywood is no different today. After Gladiator, we got Troy, Alexander, and others I don’t remember (and which, in twenty years, no one else will either). After The Lord of the Rings, we got The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass, and a myriad of other similar movies. How many of them have been successful? The two based on classic novels that remained fully true to their original sources.

Even among Hollywood actresses today, the people who thrive are those who are unique. The dime-a-dozen generic blondes might get to be some muscle-bound action hero’s wife in a movie or two, then get relegated to bimbo parts on television, but it’s Julia Styles, Renee Zellweger, Amy Adams, Glenn Close, Christina Ricci, and Rachel Weisz who hit the big time.

This has been a part of my own personal journey. I am learning to embrace the fact that my writing is never going to be as witty as Michael Frayn or that my dialogue will never be as snappy as Tom Stoppard’s, but what my writing does have is much heart, much middle-America appeal, and brains. If I write plays and fiction that is true to myself, then I will do what no one else can do better—write like myself.

So, just as Mary Martin had to learn to stop trying to be other people in order to hit it big—and hit it big she did—we have to do the same. By her own account, her cheek bones were wrong, her neck was too long, and her nose was too rounded. She even says she lost her high soprano after touring in Annie Get Your Gun, but what she had was something different, something that couldn’t be hired in anyone else. She had Mary Martin.

the Broadway Mouth
April 7, 2008

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